Terrorists (Punjabi Taliban) simultaneously attacked two Ahmedi sect mosques in Lahore during Friday prayers and killed over 80 people. First thoughts on this evil attack: The choice of target is easy to understand. Ahmedis are a persecuted and vilified minority in Pakistan and "mainstream" news organizations feel no compunction about attacking them, so the ground is already prepared. e.g. GEO TV's religion presenter (and phoney doctor) Amir Liaqat Hussain, a former minister, encouraged people to kill them if they "overstepped their bounds" and an Ahmedi doctor was promptly killed; there was some fuss in the liberal press but his programme aalim-Online is still on TV and writes a particularly vicious column in a major newspaper.
Of course, the day is also significant. May 28 is the anniversary of Pakistan's nuclear explosion and is a national day of jingoism, so the jihadis probably regarded it as appropriate for such an action.
There will be talk of stepped up security and other such usual BS, but the fact is that such terrorism is unstoppable until you get at the infrastructure that trains and guides these terrorists. This infrastructure of support and guidance is known to everyone in Pakistan, but decisive action is difficult because of the following reasons:
- The army set up and protected this monster and knows better than anyone how big the beast is. Arif Jamal (in the book Shadow Wars) estimates that the army and its subcontractors trained half a million jihadis. That’s a lot of trained killers even for a country as big as Pakistan. Even if some of the top brass now want to proceed against them, they would prefer to do so slowly and in small increments. Slow and steady action also ensures a long-term American GWOT subsidy, so the top brass may not see any need to hurry.
- Because the army does not like to admit mistakes, it has never really let the general public know that mistakes were made and enemies within were created by the blessed armed forces themselves. Instead, they rely heavily on the narrative of "foreign hand" and "Indian-Zionist agents". This means the "information war" is a total mess and the general public (whose cooperation is essential for any counter-insurgency) remains confused about who is fighting whom and for what purpose. Again, the confusion may suit the general staff just fine (letting them hang on to some shreds of their jihadist/Islamist bona-fides while collecting American subsidies and gradually taking action against terrorists who refuse to limit themselves to anti-Indian or anti-Afghan actions) but is not helpful to anyone else. Public officials, politicians and media personalities not only add to the confusion, they themselves remain confused, which inhibits decisive action and allows terrorist supporters to operate unchecked.
- Several decades of officially sponsored jihadist propaganda have created a significant jihadist constituency in the educated classes. What the Marxists of yore would call the "class interests" of this elite force them to be anti-jihadi (because those "class interests" are intertwined with a capitalist global economy and the modern world in general, and the modern world currently has low tolerance for the jihadist project). But their ideological vocabulary (the story they tell themselves about the world) is heavily coloured by Islamist and Jihadist elements. The resulting cognitive dissonance not only gives migraines to the American embassy, it also undermines the anti-terrorist effort in significant ways.
- And all this is layered on top of the "baseline" level of violence one expects in any mismanaged, unequal, unfair, over-populated, under-represented, mis-educated and ethnically divided third world population. Some level of organized and unorganised violence against the corrupt state shows up in the erstwhile Hindu kingdom of Nepal, the secular republic of India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, etc. in various forms, ranging from large scale criminality to Maoist insurgencies. In remote places, the weakness of the state also lets the people organize on ethnic and religious basis and local armed gangs are a feature of all these societies. It sounds almost unbelievably stupid, but our brilliant general staff actually played a role in creating ethnic militias in our largest city as well. These alone would be a large enough set of headaches for any country, but the general staff added an Islamist insurgency on top of all these “normal” South Asian problems (and of course, the two merge in various creative ways). When it rains, it pours.
But all this does not mean that Pakistan will not survive. I still think it will survive. In fact, I will stick my neck out and predict that:
- Very slowly, painfully and very very incompetently, the ruling elite will fight the jihadist insurgency and eventually bring it under control (and some in the elite will get very rich doing so).
- The baseline "Maoist" component of the insurgency could potentially have grown into a serious problem, but Islamism will co-opt all other grievances and will save the ruling elite in the long run because the hardcore Islamists are so insane, the corrupt and vicious ruling elite will look better by comparison.
- India, China, Iran and America will spend sleepless nights figuring out how to keep Pakistan in one piece and while their efforts will occasionally work at cross purposes, the overall impact will be positive.
- Islamism as it currently exists is not compatible with coexistence in the modern world. It will be modified and replaced with a more flexible Islamist vocabulary, but it will take some time.
Flexible and accommodating versions of Islam that freely borrowed from local traditions and were more aligned with actual human needs in our part of the world were dominant in folk Islam in India. These flexible forms were mostly Sufi-derived and transmitted via everyday folk culture, not through "high church" texts. Now that literacy and concrete thinking are more prevalent and folk-culture is increasingly disconnected from people who have moved to new cities and live new lives, the folk versions are at a disadvantage and literal-minded modern people are susceptible to the jihadi-oriented orthodox version. Saudi money, CIA ingenuity and narrow-minded versions of Pakistani ideology did their magic and an entire generation grew up hostile to the flexible and humane folk Islam of our ancestors (usually dismissed as “Hindooana rusoom”).
The Islam regarded as orthodox and correct by these new literate Muslims is susceptible to jihadist interpretation. The elite encouraged this interpretation in the mistaken belief that it would help them gain the upper hand against India. Now that whole project has blown up in their face. Many of them realize that a change of course is needed, but they lack the vocabulary and the stories that would flesh out this new course. Outsiders, lacking local knowledge and empathy and frequently having other interests in view, probably do more harm than good when they try to identify “Sufi” and “moderate” versions to encourage. But in the long run, the needs of the elite will demand a new orthodoxy compatible with modern needs and the demand will be met. It's hard to see right now because these are still early days in this turnaround. But economic and social pressures are pushing in that direction and will prove unstoppable.
Until then, the show must go on.
And even when this monster is brought under control, the “normal” problems of South Asia will still remain to be solved.
Omar Ali is a Pakistani-American physician who also moderates the “Asiapeace” discussion group on the internet